First question: what is the ontological status of gender? Gender is a social construct. I take social constructs to be real things whose existence is contingent on the beliefs and practices of humans. There is a lot here to be unpacked. These notions of realness and ontological contingency are actually quite vague. Not only do they come in degrees, but their conditions of application are tricky to spell out. Speaking very loosely, ‘realness’ in this context is about effects on our experience and verifiable impacts on us, even if such impacts aren’t represented directly in our conscious experience. In this broad sense, fictions like unicorns have some small degree of reality insofar as they appear in fantasies, art and stories. Things we call unicorns have a sort of life of their own in our subjective world. They would have even more reality for a delusional psychotic having apparent sensory contact with them in her everyday life. Gravity has a much greater degree of reality. It has a huge and obvious impact on our experience and plans. Money also has a high degree of reality. But it has a different nature; it is not a physical force in the way that gravity is. What is its nature then? It is some kind of abstract entity. Not just any kind of abstract entity though – it is a paradigm case of a social construct. Not all abstract entities are uncontroversially social constructs. Mathematics may be considered as dealing with abstract objects, but seems quite different to money. This is where the the idea of ‘contingency’ and subjectivity comes in. If we didn’t believe in money or treat bits of paper and metal and book-keeping entries as money, we would just have bits of paper, metal and symbols in books and electronic files. That is, money would cease to exist. Not so with gravity. Most philosophers would, for this reason, place money in the category of social constructs and gravity in the category of objective facts – i.e., facts which are not contingent on our beliefs and practices. Mathematics would also usually be considered objective as opposed to socially constructed, even though it seems abstract and conceptual, like money.
In the case of gender, I think we have a partial social construct. I claim that it is not true that if we didn’t have gender-specific beliefs and treat people as belonging to gender categories, gender would simply cease to exist. But it would change. As I will briefly describe, gender refers to a constellation of traits. The way that they behave, statistically speaking, is not entirely up to us. This is to say that their behaviour is not entirely due to nurture. There is a nature component. There is nothing new about this view. It is just the rejection of the blank slate picture of human nature in this regard.
Next question: what is the content and role of gender? Gender is a way of classifying people, which typically uses male and female categories (although there are more complex gender systems which have addition categories and/or subcategories). The role of gender classification is complex and has many dimensions: economic, psychological, sexual, social, cultural, political, military, and so on. Gender sorts people into two (or more) types and assigns them roles in each of these domains. Associated with each gender is a vaguely-defined cluster of physical and behavioural traits. In contemporary ‘European-Western’ culture, feminine traits include physical traits such as softer, cooler skin, a lighter frame, higher pitched voice, etc., as well as psychological/behavioural traits like being caring/empathetic, attracted to men, gentle, having higher agreeableness as well as neuroticism, etc. Purportedly masculine traits include being stronger, having more rugged/masculinized features, having deeper voices, wider shoulders, being taller, hairier, more muscular, more object-oriented, attracted to women, adventure-seeking, risk-taking, aggressive, competitive, assertive, less agreeable, less neurotic, less emotionally intelligent and introspective, etc. Of course, just because you are assigned the male gender or the female gender, you are not automatically presumed to fulfil the paradigmatic or archetypical form of that gender. At most, you are thought to potentially embody that form, and perhaps you are also encouraged to embody it as a normative ideal.
How is gender assigned? Typically one’s status as a man or woman is assigned according to one’s biological sex, which is defined in terms of chromosomes, genitals, hormones and gamete production (sperm or ova). But there are atypical cases. Transsexuals demonstrate that gender can be assigned without regard to sex. Gender, in principle, floats free of biological sex. It is simply a cluster of associated traits, and if a person embodies enough of those traits to bear a ‘family resemblance’ to the relevant gender, then that person may legitimately be assigned to that gender category.
Two points to notice here.
First, the fact that gender and sex can come apart suggests that they are not identical and that one’s status with respect to sex is not a necessary condition for one’s gender status. Gender and sex, as words and concepts, behave differently. Gender is more of a family resemblance concept, whereas sex is more of a natural kind concept.
Second, what I have said makes it sound as if gender is a socially assigned category or status, which violates the idea that simply identifying in a certain way determines one’s gender status. But the debate here is about how we want to define/assign gender status. This is an interesting political example of a “metasemantic negotiation”, i.e., a negotiation over how to correctly use a given word. Is one correctly described as a man if one feels like a man? Or only if the community regards one as a man? Regardless of how we do and should correctly use such words, I think both sides can agree that what guides the assignment of gender is the cluster of gender-typical traits which fills the content of the relevant gender construct. They are just fighting about whether an individual’s assessment of how they ‘score’ with respect to those traits can trump the community’s assessment.
Why is gender typically assigned in this way. i.e., according to sex? What is the relationship between gender and sex? I said that gender is a social construct. I don’t think sex is. The sex distinction would exist if people stopped believing in it and stopped acting as if it were real. There would be a distinction to be drawn between organisms that produce sperm and those that produce ova (even if there would still be exceptions). The interesting question is why gender is assigned on the basis of sex. The answer, I think, is that gender, although a social construct, draws on patterns of correlation between various physical/behavioural/psychological traits. The stability of these correlations suggests causal-biological processes are involved in these correlations.
Sex is a strong predictor of which cluster of gendered traits an individual will tend to embody. But it does not determine that one will. Nor is the correlation between such traits guaranteed. Any combination of them in an individual is possible. There is no law of nature prohibiting an individual from being extremely neurotic, heavy-framed, exceptionally strong and assertive, with a high-pitched voice, being attracted to women, being gentle, having breasts and masculine facial features, and so on.
When it comes to almost all of these physical/ psychological/ behavioural traits, the explanation of their occurrence is seldom either nature or nurture. My contention is that there is a significant natural element and that in many cases the same element (e.g., hormones) is driving multiple traits which are thereby correlated. The size of the element will vary depending on the trait. (This is where a lot of speculative, descriptive disagreement lies, I think.) Thus, with some traits, the nurture explanation is more significant, so that we could design a culture that would eliminate the correlation between that trait and the sex it is typically associated with, where ‘typically’ is defined relative to contemporary western culture. With others, the natural element is so strong that no amount of cultural re-engineering is likely to eliminate the correlation. This will occur more often with certain physical traits, I’d wager.
There is a middle ground of traits which have significant natural and cultural determinants. Within this group of traits, we may find some traits problematic such that we wish to abolish them entirely. Very contentiously, aggression might be an example of a ‘gendered trait’ we wish to do without. With others, we might simply wish to eliminate their currently sexed distribution. For example, object-orientation. In these cases, such social-political objectives may be achievable, but at the cost of continuously fighting nature. This may be doable; we just have to engineer our social and educational systems in suitable ways.
Conclusion: my core claim is that gender categories in each culture glom onto a statistical pattern which has an explanation which is at least partly biological. But they will do so in different ways, emphasizing different traits within the cluster of traits that correlate with each sex, and this might be due to various social and cultural influences and interests.
There are two extreme views on gender that I reject:
1. Gender essentialism
I take gender essentialism to be the view that every person sexed male necessarily has all the masculine traits (has the masculine essence), and every person sexed female necessarily has all the feminine traits (has the feminine essence). That seems clearly wrong. The reality is messy.
With respect to any gendered trait, we could draw up a distribution curve with the x-axis plotting how high individuals score on that trait, and the y-axis plotting how many individuals get counted at that score. If we divide a population by sex and graph their distribution, we might get two bell curves. How far apart they are indicates how gendered the trait is. Take something like height. The curve for males will be to the right of the curve for females. But unless they are so far apart that they are non-overlapping, there will be many females who are taller than many males. So it cannot be the case that all females are shorter than all males. That would be a crude essentialist claim. I imagine most people sympathetic to essentialism would back away from measurable quantities like height and appeal to more nebulous feminine qualities to avoid such objections, or soften the requirement for exceptionless generalisations.
2. Radical social constructionism
This is the view that there is no biological basis for the way that gender categories are constructed. This seems implausible. I find it difficult to believe is that we could construct a gender (e.g., how ‘a man’ tends to look and act) in an arbitrary fashion, i.e., in a way which ignores the way that certain traits correlate together and with biological sex. To illustrate, imagine that we artificially created a culture which inverted our gender system – which told its boys to act like we tell our girls to act, and vice versa. Would this artificial system be sustainable, or would it encounter fatal resistance from experience?
While the clusters of traits that correlate with sex are not static (they can be manipulated in degree and perhaps even to some extent in kind, by nurture), there are naturally-defined constraints and contours of resistance. For example, it seems plausible that being sexed female (producing ova) correlates with being primarily sexually attracted to males. But we know that lesbianism and/or bisexuality is common and it is plausible that it would be more common if it were more culturally normalized. The thing I doubt is that a culture could tell those humans sexed female to be primarily sexually attracted to females. There isn’t enough of a biological grounding for that particular version of gender construct to get off the ground. There would be too many females who would look around at the men and get horny, and not look at the women and get as horny. And this seems to be due to biological factors. The case could be made more strongly for men I think…
The questions here were descriptive, and many disputes regarding gender are descriptive. But until we explore the normative questions regarding gender, it can be hard to see why such descriptive disagreements get people so worked up. And indeed it does often seem weird to me how non-scientists passionately dispute about how much the correlation between gender and sex exists and is natural, especially given how speculative a lot of this is… I address one prominent normative question in another post: should we abolish gender?